The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ mission is to enhance the quality of life, to promote economic opportunity, and to carry out the responsibility to protect and improve the trust assets of American Indians, Indian tribes and Alaska Natives.
History of BIA
Since its inception in 1824, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has been both a witness to and a principal player in the relationship between the Federal Government and Indian tribes and Alaska Native villages. The BIA has changed dramatically over the past 185 years, evolving as Federal policies designed to subjugate and assimilate American Indians and Alaska Natives have changed to policies that promote Indian self-determination.
For almost 200 years, dating back to the role it played in negotiating treaty agreements between the United States and tribes in the late 18th and 19th centuries, the BIA has embodied the trust and government-to-government relationships between the U.S. and the Federally recognized tribes. Over the years, the BIA has been involved in the implementation of Federal laws that have directly affected all Americans. The General Allotment Act of 1887 opened tribal lands west of the Mississippi to non-Indian settlers, the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 granted American Indians and Alaska Natives U.S. citizenship and the right to vote, and the New Deal and the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 established modern tribal governments. The World War II period of relocation and the post-War termination era of the 1950s led to the activism of the 1960s and 1970s that saw the takeover of the BIA’s headquarters and resulted in the creation of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975. The Tribal Self-Governance Act of 1994 along with the Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act have fundamentally changed how the Federal Government and the tribes conduct business with each other.
In the early years of the United States, Indian affairs were governed by the Continental Congress, which in 1775 created a Committee on Indian Affairs headed by Benjamin Franklin. Article I, Section 8, of the U.S. Constitution describes Congress's powers over Indian affairs: "To regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes." The BIA, one of the oldest bureaus in the Federal government, was administratively established by Secretary of War John C. Calhoun on March 11, 1824, to oversee and carry out the Federal government's trade and treaty relations with the tribes. Congress gave the BIA statutory authority by the act of July 9, 1832 (4 Stat. 564, chap. 174). In 1849, the BIA was transferred to the newly created U.S. Department of the Interior. For years thereafter, the Bureau was known variously as the Indian office, the Indian bureau, the Indian department, and the Indian Service. The Interior Department formally adopted the name “Bureau of Indian Affairs” for the agency on September 17, 1947.
Since 1824, there have been 45 Commissioners of Indian Affairs, of whom six have been American Indian or Alaska Native: Ely S. Parker, Seneca (1869-1871); Robert L. Bennett, Oneida (1966-1969); Louis R. Bruce, Mohawk-Oglala Sioux (1969-1973); Morris Thompson, Athabascan (1973-1976); Benjamin Reifel, Sioux (1976-1977); and William E. Hallett, Red Lake Chippewa (1979-1981). From 1981 to 2003, the title "Deputy Commissioner" was used to denote the head of the BIA. In 2003, after a major reorganization of the BIA, the title was administratively changed to "Director," which is still in use today. The first BIA Director was Terrance Virden, followed by Brian Pogue and Patrick Ragsdale (2005-2007). Then Jerold L. "Jerry" Gidner, Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa served from (2007-2010). Michael Black, Oglala Lakota Sioux, served as Director from 2010 to November, 2016. Bruce Loudermilk, a citizen of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana, served as Director from November 2016 to September 2017. Director Bryan Rice, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma was appointed in October of 2017. On April 28, 2019, the position was then filled by Darryl LaCounte, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians in North Dakota.
William Hallett was the last to serve as BIA Commissioner following the establishment of the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs position within the Interior Department in 1977. Since then, 12 individuals, all American Indians, have been confirmed by the United States Senate for the post: Forrest J. Gerard, Blackfeet (1977-1980); Thomas W. Fredericks, Mandan-Hidatsa (1981); Kenneth L. Smith, Wasco (1981-1984); Ross O. Swimmer, Cherokee Nation (1985-1989); Dr. Eddie F. Brown, Tohono O’odham-Yaqui (1989-1993); Ada E. Deer, Menominee (1993-1997); Kevin Gover, Pawnee (1997-2001); Neal A. McCaleb, Chickasaw Nation (2001-2002); David W. Anderson, Lac Courte Oreilles Chippewa-Choctaw (2004-2005); and Carl J. Artman, Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin (2007-2008); Larry Echo Hawk, Pawnee (2009-2012); Kevin K. Washburn, Chickasaw Nation (2012-2016).Tara Katuk Mac Lean Sweeney, Native Village of Barrow Inupiat Traditional Government/Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope (2018-2021). Bryan Newland, Bay Mills Indian Community (2021-Current).
The past thirty years have also seen the largest increase in the number of American Indian and Alaska Native people working for the BIA. Currently, most of its employees are American Indian or Alaska Native, representing a number larger than at any time in its history. In keeping with the authorities and responsibilities granted under the Snyder Act of 1921 and other Federal laws, regulations, and treaties, BIA employees across the country work with tribal governments in the administration of law enforcement and justice; agricultural and economic development; tribal governance; and natural resources management programs in order to enhance the quality of life in tribal communities.
The BIA carries out its core mission to serve 574 Federally recognized tribes through four offices. The Office of Indian Services operates the BIA's general assistance, disaster relief, Indian child welfare, tribal government, Indian Self-Determination, and reservation roads programs. The Office of Justice Services directly operates or funds law enforcement, tribal courts, and detention facilities on Federal Indian lands. The Office of Trust Services works with tribes and individual American Indians and Alaska Natives in the management of their trust lands, assets, and resources. Finally, the Office of Field Operations oversees 12 regional offices and 83 agencies which carry out the mission of the Bureau at the tribal level.
The BIA's responsibilities once included providing health care services to American Indians and Alaska Natives. In 1954, that function was legislatively transferred to the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, now known as the Department of Health and Human Services, where it has remained to this day as the Indian Health Service (IHS). For information about the U.S. Indian Health Service, visit www.ihs.gov.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs is a rarity among Federal agencies. With roots reaching back to the Continental Congress, the BIA is almost as old as the United States itself. As Federal policy has changed from notions of subjugating and assimilating American Indians and Alaska Natives, so the BIA’s mission has changed as well. Its role now is as a partner with tribes to help them achieve their goals for self-determination while also maintaining its responsibilities under the Federal-Tribal trust and government-to-government relationships.